Of all the rookies on this year’s Epson Tour, perhaps none are as intriguing as Gabriela Ruffels, the former elite tennis player turned hungry pro golfer.
Ruffels, seemingly on a fast track to stardom, looked poised to be on the LPGA full-time this year. But she missed out on advancing to Q-Series by a single stroke at Stage II last October and will now spend most of 2022 on the Epson Tour (formerly Symetra Tour). The top 10 players on the money list at season’s end will earn LPGA cards for 2023. The Epson Tour kicks off next week in Winter Haven, Florida, at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic.
“It was my first Q-School, and obviously I had big expectations,” said Ruffels. “I was very close.
“Missing by a shot at Q-School is not easy at all. It was very, very tough on me.”
Yet it also served as motivation. Ruffels, 21, knows that she needs to get better to win at the next level, and she’s eager to prove herself once more.
Gabriela Ruffels of Australia plays a tee shot on the 15th hole during the first round of the LPGA LOTTE Championship at Kapolei Golf Club on April 14, 2021, in Kapolei, Hawaii. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Ruffels, the daughter of former tennis players Anna-Maria Fernandez and Ray Ruffels, didn’t take up golf until age 15. In 2019, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and in 2020, the Aussie boasted two top-15 finishes at LPGA majors. She turned pro early in 2021, forgoing her final semester at USC, and, with no status on any tour, took whatever sponsor exemptions came her way.
She finished tied for 19th at the Chevron Championship (formerly the ANA) and T-33 at the KPMG Women’s PGA. Her best finish on the Epson Tour was a share of fourth.
“I’m so glad that I did that and I took the leap and made that decision,” said Ruffels of turning pro early, “because I learned so much from last year and those starts.
“When I’m playing my best and I’m in a good space, I can compete with the best on the LPGA. It was nice to know that have that in the back of my mind, just a little bit of confidence, if I ever lose that.”
She also got a first-hand look at tour life, telling Golfweek last fall that she wasn’t prepared for how lonely it can be as a pro. She’s grateful to have former USC teammates on the Epson Tour this year as well as several friends from Australia.
Ruffels’ swing coach, Grant Waite, who also works with former Trojan and Epson Tour player Amelia Garvey, will be out at several events in Florida, including next week. Waite, a former PGA Tour winner, likes to caddie and be onsite at events, but he also appreciates the importance of teaching Ruffels to learn how to self-correct when he’s not around.
“I’m excited to have a set schedule and be able to aim toward something,” said Ruffels.
To get warmed up for next week, Ruffels competed in two events on the new East Coast Women’s Pro Tour. She first learned about the new mini-tour after former USC teammate Alyaa Abdulghany won an event in January. Ruffels has since played in two East Coast tournaments, finishing third and fourth in fields full of Epson Tour players.
Ruffels left her parents’ home in California after Christmas and came out to Isleworth in Windermere, Florida, to work on her game alongside older brother Ryan and Waite, who is also a member at the exclusive club. She’s keen to pick the brain of another Isleworth regular and close friend, 2021 Chevron winner Patty Tavatanakit, who also works with Waite.
“I’ve always been impressed with her game,” said Ruffels, “and the way she goes about her practice.”
The goals of the Epson Tour are clear: graduate and never return. Plenty of big names have taken this path. Former Symetra Tour Rookies of the Year include major champions Lorena Ochoa, Hannah Green, and Tavatanakit, who won three times on that tour in 2019.
There’s no longer a battlefield promotion on the Epson Tour. In other words, no amount of Epson Tour wins can get Ruffels to the Big Show in 2022. But there’s plenty to learn, and she’s eager to make the most of it.